Healing the Earth & Blessing the Sun:A Decade, not a Day

Dear readers and members of The Shalom Center,

Many many of us agree that the threat of climate disaster is the most important danger facing the human race and the web of life upon our planet. Many of us have noticed that in the great and archetypal story of the Exodus, Pharaoh's arrogance does as much damage to the earth itself – "the Plagues" -- as to his own society.

But many of us feel blown away by other crises that seem more urgent: --

The world-wide economic collapse and our own loss of jobs and savings; worsening bloodshed between Israel and its neighbors; the danger of a bloody quagmire in Afghanistan; the AIDS epidemic in Africa and elsewhere; failures in health care and education in the US; crises over immigration; rising rates of gun violence; denial of full human rights to gays and lesbians ….

So far, "global scorching" has affected only the margins of American space – so it is easy to say, "Big problem" – and focus on something else. But droughts in Georgia and California; rising danger of hurricane fury; extreme weather come often instead of seldom; widespread die-offs of honey-bee colonies that are crucial to our food chain; the asthma epidemic –-- all these are hints of what's already on the way.

The ancient insight embodied in two Hebrew words – that "adam," humanity, and "adamah," the earth, come from the same root and are inextricably intertwined – has been forcing itself higher and higher into our awareness.

So at last, our Congress seems ready to address the need for limiting CO2 and methane emissions and moving swiftly toward green energy and green jobs. But under intense pressure from the entrenched drug lords of Big Coal and Big Oil, the legislation intended to accomplish this may turn out to be only an empty shell unless we, the American people, make it real.

The Shalom Center is committing itself to focus on this issue, while not ignoring the others we have mentioned above.

To make a difference, laws intended to "green" not just our buildings or our vehicles but American society as a whole will have to take into account the best scientific wisdom as well as the deepest spiritual understanding.

That means knowing the goals we have to reach if our planet is not to suffer irreparable loss. For the rest of this letter, I am drawing on the summaries of an "organization" and website called "350.org."

Why the name? 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit . Our current level is 387 ppm.

Accelerating arctic warming and other early climate impacts have led scientists to conclude that we are already above the safe zone at our current 387ppm, and that unless we are able to rapidly return to 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt.

There are three numbers we need to really understand global scorching: 275, 385, and 350.

For all of human history until about 200 years ago, our atmosphere contained 275 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Parts per million is simply a way of measuring the concentration of different gases, and means the ratio of the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million other molecules in the atmosphere. 275 ppm CO2 is a useful amount—without some CO2 and other greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere, our planet would be too cold for humans to inhabit.

So we need some carbon in the atmosphere, but the question is how much?

Beginning in the 18th century, humans began to burn coal and gas and oil to produce energy and goods. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere began to rise, at first slowly and now more quickly. Many of the activities we do every day like turning the lights on, cooking food, or heating or cooling our homes rely on energy sources like coal and oil that emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. We're taking millions of years worth of carbon, stored beneath the earth as fossil fuels, and releasing it into the atmosphere. By now—and this is the second number—the planet has 387 parts per million CO2 – and this number is rising by about 2 parts per million every year.

Scientists are now saying that's too much – that number is higher than any time seen in the recorded history of our planet – and we're already beginning to see disastrous impacts on people and places all over the world.

• Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast—and they are a source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people.

• Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them.

• Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places.

• Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century. If that happens, many of the world's cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater.

• The oceans are growing more acidic because of the CO2 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build and maintain their shells and skeletons. Coral reefs could start dissolving at an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450-500 ppm.

These impacts are combining to exacerbate conflicts and security issues in already resource-strapped regions.

The Arctic is sending us perhaps the clearest message that climate change is occurring much more rapidly than scientists previously thought. In the summer of 2007, sea ice was roughly 39% below the summer average for 1979-2000, a loss of area equal to nearly five United Kingdoms. Many scientists now believe the Arctic will be completely ice free in the summertime between 2011 and 2015, some 80 years ahead of what scientists had predicted just a few years ago.

Propelled by the news of these accelerating impacts, some of the world's leading climate scientists have now revised the highest safe level of CO2 to 350 parts per million. That's the last number we need to know, and the most important. It's the safety zone for planet earth.

As James Hansen of America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the first scientist to warn about global warming more than two decades ago, wrote recently, "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

That will be a hard task, but not impossible. We need to stop taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air. Above all, that means we need to stop burning so much coal and oil—and start using solar and wind energy and other such sources of renewable energy. We need to ensure the Global South has a fair chance to develop without following the self-destructive fossil-fuel path. We need to ensure that inside the US, workers and business that need to be phased out also receive special help to move into a green economy.

If we make this shift, then the earth’s soils and forests will slowly cycle some of that extra carbon out of the atmosphere, and eventually CO2 concentrations will return to a safe level. By decreasing use of other fossil fuels, and improving agricultural and forestry practices around the world, scientists believe we could get back to 350 by mid-century. But the longer we remain in the danger zone—above 350—the more likely that we will see disastrous and irreversible climate impacts.

Every year since 1992, the United Nations hosts a two-week long conference for world leaders to meet and discuss what to do to about the global threat of climate change.

In December of 2009, this meeting will be in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, delegates, non-governmental organizations, and businesses from every nation will meet to finalize a new global climate change agreement. COP15

It is crucial that decision-makers at this meeting understand and are held accountable to crafting policy that is informed by the most recent science.

Just over a year old, 350 is a relatively new target being discussed in the scientific community, compared to 450ppm or 2 degrees Celsius that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change supports. Currently many policy-makers, institutions, and NGOs are still supporting targets that are out of date and greatly increase the risk of catastrophic climatic changes.

Yet at the last UN climate negotiations in Poland at the end of 2009, the 350 target began to attract more endorsers as new scientific reports and evidence of early impacts made it clear that we are already above the safe level for CO2. In his annual speech, Nobel laureate Al Gore told delegates to the most recent climate negotiating session that we must now ‘toughen our goal’ to 350ppm.

At the same meetings, 40 of the most vulnerable nations who will feel the impacts of climate change first and worst, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDC’s), included in their policy statements the need to adopt a much stronger target than those currently being debated, and to support a 350ppm target. Said Leon Charles, chair AOSIS, “Two degrees C is really not a safe level for small island states. For many of them it would be like a death sentence in the long run.”

With your help, we can spread this important information to our fellow citizens, communities, countries, and the world. For more in-depth information on climate science, policy, and solutions, please see the list of recommended resources below.

During the past six months, The Shalom Center has been deeply involved in creating the New Freedom Seder for the Earth and in pointing both the Seder and observance of the 28-year event of Blessing the Sun toward making changes in public policy. We will begin now to focus on the bills before Congress and how to address them from our deepest spiritual, religious, and ethical wisdom.

We ask you to help us help you do that by contributing to our "work-on-a-shoestring" budget. (Click on the Shalom Center logo on the right-hand margin of this page.)

With blessings that we actually begin to heal the rift between "adam" and "adamah" -- –
(Rabbi Arthur Waskow)


* Hansen, James, et al. Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? Submitted April 7, 2008. NASA climate scientist James Hansen's paper about the 350ppm target.

* Hansen, James, et al. Target Atmospheric CO2: Supporting Material. Submitted April 7, 2008.

* The IPCC 4th Assessment Report – link to the latest report by the Nobel-prize winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, supported by the world's leading climatologists.

* Baer, Paul, Tom Athanasiou and Sivan Kartha. "The Right to Develop in a Climate Constrained World: The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework" - an important policy framework for how to mitigate climate change while ensuring an equitable path to development for the Global South.

* The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - link to the official UNFCCC website with information about the UN climate policy process.

* NASA - scientific reports, interactive maps, resources for kids, and more

* RealClimate.org - a blog of climate science, written by climate scientists

* Climate Safety - a very useful new report about current climate science, policy, and solutions

* Pew Center on Climate Change - helpful information about climate science and international policy